December 2013 Church & State | People & Events

During the federal government shutdown, a number of religious organizations attempted to fill voids created by shuttered government aid programs, leaving at least one scholar to question the effectiveness of so-called “faith-based” initiatives.

In a recent article for the website “Religion Dispatches,” Brie Loskota, managing director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, said many congregations have difficulty simply meeting the needs of their own members and can’t handle assisting an entire community.

“Before we buy into the false gospel of congregations as the singular salvific actors that are standing at the ready poised to rescue our collective needs in this economic disaster, we need to accurately assess their capacity to stretch beyond their current efforts, especially in the absence of government programs,” Loskota wrote.

Loskota said houses of worship that provide social services often work with government programs, not independently of such programs. She cited regional food banks that receive resources from government initiatives like Women, Infants and Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Nor is it realistic, Loskota said, to think of resource-rich mega-churches “with sprawling campuses and professional ministerial, administrative, and social programs staff” as the norm. Instead, she said, the average U.S. congregation has about 100 members.

She went on to say that “congregations are a microcosm of the social and economic issues found in their larger contexts,” and that “the magical barrier of the church walls” doesn’t protect houses of worship from tough economic times.

In conclusion, Loskota wrote that asking too much of churches, especially in the absence of government programs, could be disastrous.

“[W]e may find that the burdens we expect them to shoulder will cause their collapse,” she wrote.